Maneuver Warfare in the 21st Century: A Case Study of Indirect Approach to Warfighting

Written by LTC JO-AR A HERRERA INF (GSC) PA. published in January 2022 at The Army Journal (Vol. 20 Issue 1, January to June 2022)


The war on terrorism launched by the United States of America (USA) forces after the 9/11 suicide attack by Al-Queda challenged the “end of the cold war” outlook of a globalized, post-conflict environment that promotes geopolitical stability, socioeconomic advancement, and peacetime condition. This condition has changed vastly as the current and future operational environment characterizes multidimensional challenges resulting in peaceful competition to a broad spectrum of conflict or full-scale high-intensity warfare.

The post-cold war environment is a near absence of open warfare between forces of nation-states and massed combatants on the battlefield. This paper seeks to answer the relevance of the concept of Maneuver Warfare today and will look into cases of war on terrorism involving the Philippines, USA, and Singapore to illuminate and clarify the hypothesis that the concept of Maneuver Warfare grows increasingly irrelevant in the 21st Century. This study benchmarks on the perspectives and insights promoted by Robert Leonhard in his compelling book, The Art of Maneuver: Maneuver-Warfare Theory and AirLand Battle.


According to Robert Leonhard, Maneuver Warfare is a philosophy that seeks to defeat the enemy by shattering his moral and physical cohesion rather than destroying him physically through incremental attrition. It encompasses all means, including offensive and defensive operations. Leonhard also stressed that Maneuver Warfare is not restricted to maneuver forces such as armor and infantry forces.

Sun Tzu, the famous military scholar, influenced past and present military thoughts and thinkingto which Robert Leonhard described the scholar’s Art of War as a critical element of the evolution of maneuver theory. The enemy’s will to fight of the enemy involves emotional, psychological, and mental characteristics. Similarly, the physical capabilities comprise relative combat power that encompasses physical, informational, and leadership. The focus of Maneuver Warfare is to erode the enemy’s will to fight and heightens attacking the adversary’s cognition and morale rather than their physical capabilities.


The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces a worldwide, magnified view of the radicalized violent groups’ ideology to establish an Islamic state. While the USA and allied countries’ campaigns in Iraq and Syria immobilized and defeated ISIS forces, the Philippine government defeated ISIS-inspired groups in the battle of Marawi. Similarly, Singapore’s Whole-of-Government Approach dismantled terrorist organizations and prevented hostile acts.

Reflecting on these circumstances, the concept of Maneuver Warfare is still incredibly relevant as manifested in the war against global terrorism. Maneuver Warfare espoused three approaches to military victory as infinitely superior to the concept of attrition, namely: Preemption, Dislocation, and Disruption.

The most preferred approach to deal with an enemy in conventional and non-conventional tactics is preemption. Surgical air strikes and swift raids targeting terrorist bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria became part of the US doctrine for pre-emptive attacks against enemy formations. The use of technology-based weapon systems, like unmanned aerial vehicles and air-launched cruised missiles with a range of more than 200 kilometers, paved the way for their ability to conduct a precision strike.


The Singapore government used an integrated and digitally linked intelligence system to track terrorist organizations. When the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) established a cell in Singapore in 1989, their government initiated several preemption operations to attack the enemies before launching terror activities. With a strong intelligence network, Singaporean enforcers were able to dismantle the terrorist cell in the country. In 2001, the Singapore government averted several terror attacks, taking for example a plan to detonate six truck bombs that targeted embassies and government infrastructures.

The Singaporean authorities implemented a Whole- of-Government approach through an Internal Security Act which lead to the arrest of 58 suspected local and foreign terrorists from 2014 to 2018. The kinetic and non-kinetic responses guided Singapore’s zero-tolerance approach to terrorism, including the imposition of arrest and detention; restriction orders to deportations; protective security measures; counter-ideology; and terrorist rehabilitation and community engagement.

Leonhard emphasized that preemption is the most robust expression of the maneuver theory. It offers the government or military commanders the economic means of defeating the enemy. Above all, it values the significance of time and boldness in executing a given mission. These preemption efforts emphasize speed, accuracy, surprise, and the enemy’s defeat without fighting or through minimal physical engagement.


The Philippine government employed joint, combined arms, and interagency operations to defeat the ISIS besieging the city of Marawi City. The military launched a hard and soft power approach that walloped and thrashed the enemy’s will to fight through dislocation and disruption. The hard power approach included an estimated total of 77 armored vehicles, nearly 5,000 infantry and special operations troops, and joint with close air support (CAS) assets to dislocate the enemy from occupying critical terrains and vantage defensive positions.

The application of Maneuver Warfare, through combined arms, pummeled and rendered the ISIS forces irrelevant and destroyed its will to fight. The impact of integrated fire and maneuver outpaced the enemy’s morale and reduced its capability to counter-attack. The optimization of feint attacks, airmobile operations, and maneuver of forces helped in the positional dislocation of the enemy. The joint and combined arms operations synchronized and complemented the physical means to destroy the enemy’s critical vulnerability, leading to the disruption of its goal to establish an Islamic State in Mindanao, Philippines.

By applying new technology, a weapons system, innovative tactics, and capturing the enemy’s logistics hubs and communication facilities paved the way for the isolation of ISIS’ command and control systemisolation. Joint Task Force. The JTF Marawi strategized to physically and psychologically contain physically and psychologically the main battle area. The intensified use of information operations became critical in attacking the enemy’s cognitive, emotional, and psychological components. Furthermore, the combined arms operations synchronized and complemented the physical means to destroy its critical vulnerability.

The intergency operations augmented the soft power approach, including civil-military operations, information operations, and sustained dialogue and engagement with key influencers during the entire crisis in Marawi City. This soft power approach was critical in attacking the enemy’s cognitive, emotional, and psychological components.


The war on terrorism experiences of the Philippines, the USA, and Singapore provided an apparent and compelling reason for the relevance of Maneuver Warfare in the 21st Century. Maneuver Warfare emphasized an indirect approach to warfighting and operations to defeat the enemy. The downfall of ISIS through pre-emptive strikes, swift raids, offensive actions, and combined arms outpaced the enemy’s morale and reduced its capability to counter-attack. Moreover, information operations is vital in Maneuver Warfare as it complements other lines of effort that emphasize attacking the enemy’s leadership, cognition, and morale rather than physical capabilities.


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LTC JO-AR A HERRERA, the 16th Commanding Officer of the Philippine Army’s 53rd Infantry “Matapat” Battalion, belongs to the Philippine Military Academy “Masikhay” Class of 1999. He holds M.A. in Social and Development Studies from the University of the Philippines and took Strategic Communication Program at the Singapore Management University. He completed his Command and Staff Course at Goh Keng Swee Command and Staff College, Singapore and Psychological Operations Course at the US Army JFK Special Warfare School and Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina where he graduated number one in his class. He introduced the concept of Servant Leadership for the PMA’s cadet leadership philosophy and character development. Lt. Col. Herrera is a recipient of PMA’s Outstanding Alumni Achievement Award for Army Operations Cavalier Award in 2006.